May 18, 2009

War Machine: a close reading, part 1

Recently, a friend of mine ran across a novel that seemed so hilariously awful he had to share. The book in question was Andy Remic's War Machine. Just using Amazon's "Look inside" feature led to so much fun that I obviously had to get him the book.

I mean, it's got Edge and Bono from U2 on the cover. How can I not buy that?

You'll notice it's billed as "rock-hard military science fiction". For so many reasons, I felt I had to read the damn thing. I mean, I've been writing about all things military for a living for nearly ten years now, I've been reading science fiction for nearly twenty years, and hell, I'm still technically majoring in English. It's a book I simply have to read. What's more, it's published by Solaris Books, which is ultimately owned by Games Workshop! And because I believe I have to read it, I'm also going to be sharing it with the world, i.e. you.

In other words, I'll be doing a close reading of Andy Remic's novel War Machine on my blag, starting soonish. Before I get to the text itself, though, I'd like to say a few things.

In doing this close reading, I may occasionally be a little harsh. I tend to be a little harsh about a number of things on this blag, but I'm not going to apologize. I don't criticize people in order to offend them or to get kicks out of it; the easiest way to describe my approach is that I follow my version of the credo: if you publish it and it sucks, I'm going to make fun of it. We'll shortly be seeing if War Machine sucks. (if you visited and read any of the excerpts, you may already know the answer)

My approach to literary criticism is strongly text-centered. To exaggerate, I don't particularly care who wrote a text and why, and I certainly don't want to try to discover the author's opinions or preferences by studying their text. The approach I'm going to be taking here will be reading the text as it is, without more context than the one provided by the book itself. I'll probably make an occasional foray elsewhere, but in the main I intend to concentrate on the text itself.


Having said that, in the interests of good writing it'll be proper to get in some background first. The author, Andy Remic, is a former English teacher from Manchester, UK, who has written a number of games for the ZX Spectrum back in the day. That's him, from Wikipedia:

In his blog, he described himself as an "Author of high-octane fast-paced kickass Fantasy and Science Fiction novels". On his website, he poses with a chainsaw (bottom of page). And the book itself contains both a dedication and an "about the author" section. Here's an excerpt from the surprisingly long dedication:

"How many men have been where we've been? And seen what we've seen?"

No matter what happens, we're not little men.
Hats on!

Not to be outdone, here's "About the Author" from the end of the book:

Andy Remic is a young British writer.
He has an unhealthy love of martial arts, kickass bikes, mountain climbing and computer hacking. Once a member of an elite Combat-K squad, he has since retired from military service and works as a biomod and weapon engineer at the NANOTEK Corporation.


About the Author
Andy Remic is a young British writer and teacher from Greater Manchester. During his teaching career he developed an interest in martial arts and is now expert in unarmed combat. He can kill a man with a single blow, but prefers writing and hacking computer systems. War Machine is his fourth novel.

There's so much I could say about these descriptions. I'll just note, though, that in case you're fooled by the recurrence of the word "young", a Google search leads one to understand that he was born in 1971. If 38 is a "young author", then, well. You know.


This is the kind of fellow whose work I'll be reading. Oh, and, um, do you suppose this counts as a book review? Because this is what he says about book reviews, on the aforementioned website:

How do you deal with the people who don't like your books, and tell you as much? If a person doesn't like my books - no problem. Everybody has different personal tastes, and I suppose my work is as acquired as any Islay whisky. After all - there are plenty of books I don't like. However, the pieces of shit I really do hate are failed-writers turned book reviewers - they really make me boil, and then know who they are. I'd certainly like to meet a few face to face.

I could be a real dick and wonder what, exactly, a failed-writer is, but I won't, nor will I ask whether he hates failed writers who review books or hates everyone who reviews books and is insulting them. In the first case, he should be OK with what I'll be saying, but in the latter case, I guess not.

Why am I being a dick about this? There's a real simple reason. He isn't, by any means, the first or the last author who hates book reviewers. I have no sympathy for this rubbish at all. In my opinion, it's perfectly simple. If you publish something, let alone if you're selling it, you're going to be criticized. Sometimes that criticism is probably going to be unfair, and it's perfectly OK to respond to that. But as for hating book reviewers in general?

In a free market economy, criticism has an important function. Every book that's out there has some gushing blurb from a publisher telling you it's the best thing ever, and every book that's notable enough to be commented on will probably have at least a page of quotes of other people gushing about it. Because practically every book has this, it contains no real information. Most of us people who read book would like to know if the books in question are good or not before we make a decision to buy them. That's what book reviews are for. They're a fairly essential service. If you hate the people who write them, or are going to respond with some inane argument on the level of "well why don't they write themselves then", you have a problem.

If you choose to write and publish a novel, you're putting it out in the public domain for us to see, read and experience, and to talk about. If you don't like some of the things people say about your novel, that's just tough. As for the level of class it shows to rail and swear about them on your website, well, like I said, I don't go in for biographical criticism.

A wit suggested to me that maybe he's looking to set up as the Uwe Boll of literature.


Let's get to the book itself. Here's what the author himself had to say about it, in an interview for SFX magazine:

SFX: Again, no spoilers! But what's the basic premise of your new novel?
RE: "War Machine is a sizzling rollercoaster of a novel with a gratuitous excess of violence, sex, dark humour and exotic aliens all wrapped up in a high-octane cling-film plot concerning an elite military unit illegally reformed who must battle across alien planets to discover justice, truth and revenge. Initially, the story begins with a quest to find an artefact which will reveal to Keenan the person who killed his wife and children."

Can you imagine a person really talking like that? Would you call something you wrote a "sizzling rollercoaster" "wrapped up in a high-octane clingfilm"? If not, then you're clearly not the kind of non-little man who writes Combat-K novels.

SFX: Solaris are calling you "the new master of rock-hard science fiction" - what's the appeal of this sort of writing, and how do you deliver?
RE: "I have a very low boredom threshold. And I love science fiction. However, in years past, nothing I read seemed to deliver the sort of high-explosive thriller-driven adventure I was looking for. So I decided to write my own. I suppose one way of looking at it is that if the work of Iain M. Banks (of whom I’m a great fan) is categorized as Space Opera, then my work would be classed as Space Opera – The Punk Remix. So, a sprawling canvas of interesting yet volatile characters, exotic war-torn alien locations held together with fast action, guns, chases, fights and battles, clever plot twists and a liberal pepper sprinkling of black comedy. Dune crossed with Jonny Rotten. Disney merged with The Clash. Doctor Who on heroin. Buffy, when she’s grown up and become a hooker. Hell, Star Wars with rag doll corpses and the Sith being real evil bastards."

So, we're in for some Rock-Hard Military Sci-Fi, or Punk Space Opera. What does that mean? Damned if I know. It all sounds really edgy!

This is what says about the book itself:

Product Description
In a time of post-Singularity and FTL travel, the Helix War has raged across galaxies. When ex-soldier turned privite investigtor [sic], Keenan, takes on a new case, he must overcome his demons and gather together his old military unit, a group who swore they’d never work together again....

The first sentence is reproduced verbatim on the book's back cover. It's the first issue I have with the book, so I'll start there.

In mathematics, a singularity is a point at which an equation "blows up", as Mathworld puts it. Back in the '80s, US professor and author Vernor Vinge coined the idea of a "technological singularity", which meant a point at which the growth of technology reaches such a high rate that we cannot extrapolate the future beyond it from where we are now.

As Remic's novel doesn't seem to provide any alternative meaning for "Singularity", the assumption that a sci-fi reader will make is that the blurb is referring to a technological singularity à la Vinge.

And that's why it's so pointless. If the future beyond a singularity can't be predicted, then it's logically impossible to write a novel set in a time after a singularity. In the same interview, Remic says his "Combat-K" novels are set "a million years into the future". That's a ridiculous number; we, homo sapiens, haven't been around for even close to a million years. A million years in the future is an impossibly long time to make predictions, as is any time beyond a technological singularity. The best you can do is guess, and by the very definition of a singularity, your guess will be based on incomplete data and can't really be accurate.

The blurb on the back cover continues:

Ex-soldier Keenan now works as a private investigator on a planet at the peaceful fringes of the Quad-Gal. Following the brutal death of his family he's run up hefty debts, gained a bad reputation and become a heavy drinker.

So it's a post-Singularity novel featuring an alcoholic private dick? Some singularity.


So we have a book called War Machine, with half of U2 on the cover, billed as "rock-hard military science fiction". It's set in the pointless contradiction that is a "post-Singularity" future where there are alcoholic private investigators. The author poses with chainsaws, describes himself like a 12-year-old and hates book reviews.

All this, and I haven't even started reading yet.


Aaro Sahari said...

You had to put it in there, didn't you? You knew I'd have to pick it up, didn't you?

"Everybody has different personal tastes, and I suppose my work is as acquired as any Islay whisky."

Acquiring a taste for Islay malt is like acquiring taste for anything that isn't readily apparent in its taste, smell, look or whatever, none of which makes it great or superb. Getting into expensive whisky might also be called somewhat stupid, and I should know!

Seriously this guy seems to be sporting the "take no prisoners" -attitude. Why?

Michael Halila said...

Yeah, it did cross my mind you might notice it...

If I were into armchair psychology, I'd be tempted to say he's almost desperate to project an image of himself as "right hard".

As for his hatred of reviewers, well, maybe he's read some of the reviews his book got.